Zombies have found an unexpected home in contemporary romantic fiction. They are no longer just mindless, soulless, drooling creatures with an insatiable hunger for brains. Instead, they have evolved to become relevant romantic figures, finding love in all the wrong (and right) places.
The zombie has come to represent the “other” in society, from people of color to women to any marginalized group of people. The zombie was once an element of spirituality in the Haitian culture, a reanimated corpse raised by magic and witchcraft. Today, the zombie is usually seen as a cannibalistic, mindless creature with but one thing on its mind… brains. Thank you, The Walking Dead!
So, with the zombie such a symbol of fear and the “other,” how has it become a viable romantic hero or heroine in fiction? When inundated with the kind of zombie imagery presented in movies and TV? Again, thank you, The Walking Dead. The decaying, drooling, mindless zombie with a killer instinct to snack on grey matter is not exactly the epitome of a romantic ideal. Whether the burgeoning romance is zombie-zombie or zombie-human, the idea of any kind of romance in which a zombie is involved does not generally fulfill the standard definition of “swoon-worthy” romance. Furthermore, the idea of a Walking Dead-style zombie engaging in the steamier aspects of romance does not do anything to add to the “swoon” factor of romance. But zombies need love, too, and they are finding it.
There is a wide range of zombie romantic fiction on the market today, covering a wide range of tastes, no pun intended. What makes a zombie a legitimate romantic figure is the same thing that makes any protagonist a romantic figure… humanity. In some cases, zombies have been given a bit of a personality overhaul, creating appeal through the use of humor and intelligence… qualities not typically associated with the walking dead. Others have gotten more of a physical makeover, eliminating the less attractive features typical of zombies, like rotting lips and detaching limbs. There are other zombies that become romantic figures because of sympathy. These are the zombies that may not have had either a physical or a personality makeover to attain some humanity, but are sympathetic characters because of the trials and tribulations that they have been through. All of these things work to create unlikely romantic heroes and heroines out of a creature that could be seen as anything but romantic.
In a number of zombie romances, humor and language are used to create a romantic hero that is believable, even in the face of that unlikelihood as a zombie. Unlike many of their paranormal character cousins, zombies are generally portrayed as having lost not only their “normal” outward appearance, but also all of those things that make one human. Humor and language techniques are often used to convey those aspects of humanity that are important to a good romance, the very same things that are generally nonexistent in the zombie world. The zombies in this category often look and act like the stereotypical zombies, but are humanized through their human-like capacity for emotion.
The novel Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion uses humor and language to humanize R and make him likeable and sweet and, therefore, believable as a romantic hero. There is very little actual effort by Marion to make R, our romantic hero, much more attractive than the average zombie in the decaying process. The only nod to his slightly elevated attractiveness is the mention that he is still in the early stages of decay. I’m still in the early stages of decay. Just the gray skin, the unpleasant smell, the dark circles under my eyes. I could almost pass for a Living man in need of a vacation. Instead, R is made into the romantic hero primarily through the use of language to convey the humanity that he still holds within him. R’s inner dialogue shows sensitivity, intelligence, compassion, affection, and a sense of humor. All of these attributes are those that are inherent to any romantic hero, regardless of race and/or species.
In other zombie romance, the zombie is made relevant as a romantic hero through a bit of a physical makeover. The zombies in this category are created to be far more physically appealing, unlike the zombies of The Walking Dead. They are humanized by the way they look, rather than by their personalities or character. Although they are more human in appearance than perhaps the zombies of horror, they do share other, non-physical characteristics with the more stereotypical zombies, but those things are manifested in different ways.
The zombies of the Dead Beautiful series by Yvonne Woon fall into this category. They are rather human versions of zombies, eschewing even the name “zombies” in favor of being called simply the Undead. Instead of being portrayed as mindless, drooling, lumbering creatures, the Undead of this series are fully functional, thinking creatures. However, they are much like stereotypical zombies in that they lack souls and the basic human capacity for empathy and instinct. They also need none of the most basic human needs like sleep or food. Dante Berlin is the zombie protagonist in this series and is portrayed as almost the Edward Cullen of the Undead world. The mysterious persona that his character presents makes him almost the epitome of the romantic hero. In this series, the inclusion of zombies, or Undead, into romance works because they are created to be more human than the typical zombie. In many ways, their “zombieness” is almost entirely stripped away to make them more easily accepted as romantic figures. The involved mythology and history that Woon creates for her Undead adds more to their aura of “other” than does the fact that they are, in fact, zombies.
And then we have one of my all-time favorite romance series, the White Trash Zombie series by Diana Rowland. She took zombie romance and turned it on its ear. . Angel is a pill popping, high school drop out with a criminal record whose life is a seemingly never ending downward spiral. She lives with her father, an alcoholic and a deadbeat, in the swamps of Louisiana, living in poverty. There are hints at emotional, and perhaps physical, abuse at the hands of both of her parents. There are themes of sexual assault and promiscuity. She abuses alcohol, drugs, and has no care for herself or for her body. Initially, there is very little that is redeeming about Angel or her story, making her role as a romantic protagonist somewhat ambiguous. Her whole personality is about as attractive as a rotting walking dead. No punches are pulled with this character, no attempt to clean her up to hide her “zombieness.” She is completely irreverent and trashy with none of the relative sophistication of Woon’s Undead or the sweetness of Marion’s R. Angel makes no apologies or excuses for her life and for her behavior, but there is no sense that she is taking responsibility for it all. Instead, it is more of a feeling of hopelessness, even apathy. As the story unfolds and the reader learns more about her history, her character becomes more human as the compassion for her grows. This is ironic as she gains her humanity after becoming a zombie. Her character is humanized, but in a totally different way than R or Dante. Rowland creates her zombies to be a bit different than either R or Dante. Her zombies have many of the physical attributes that R has, the slow decay and other somewhat unappealing characteristics. But she is fully functional and cognitive, like Dante, despite her rather disturbing love of the human brain. Because of that relatively smooth transition from human to zombie, there is far less loss of humanity. In addition to this, an extended period of time passes before Angel comes to the truth of what has happened to her and what she has become. The humanization process that she goes through to become a likable romantic heroine was less about compensating for her “zombiness,” and more about changing her “humanness.”
What is it about zombies that make them so appealing, especially in the unexpected roles of romantic heroes and heroines? Vampires and werewolves embody the ideas of desire, seduction, intelligence, strength, and sexuality. Zombies do not embody any of these traits.
Zombies have a harder road to travel to get to the world of romance. They have to compensate for rotting flesh, bad body odor, emotional and cognitive distance, and a frequent lack of communicative capability. They have to learn to create humanity and empathy when their own souls have been stripped away by the very same thing that they themselves have become. Through humor and a creative use of language, a bit of a makeover, and the triumph over the darker side of humanity, zombies like R, Dante, and Angel can become the very kind of romantic protagonist that we all want to love. After all, zombies need love, too…